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Middle East

Yemen war rivals refuse to back down in UN peace talks

media A member of the Houthi delegation at Sanaa airport, leaving for Sweden, December 6 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

Talks between Yemen’s government and rebels, locked in a brutal war for nearly four years, opened on Thursday as tensions remained high despite what the UN envoy called a “critical opportunity”.

Yemen’s government and rebels doubled down on their rival demands on Thursday, just moments before hard-won consultations opened in Sweden under the auspices of the United Nations.

Yemeni Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yamani, who heads the Saudi-backed government’s delegation to the UN-sponsored talks in Sweden, said that his team would follow through with a planned prisoner swap with the Houthi rebels. And the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it was ready to play a role in the Yemeni prisoner swap  and voiced hope that the deal between the warring sides would build confidence for a political solution to end the war.

“The ICRC has been asked to play its role as a neutral intermediary and provide technical support...it will be of utmost importance to be able to certify the will of each detainee to be part of the process,”  Fabrizio Carboni, ICRC regional director for the Middle East, said in a statement.

Carboni, speaking earlier to reporters, said that the estimated number of Yemeni detainees “varies from 5,000 to 8,000”.

But al-Yamani refused to compromise on the flashpoint port city of Hodeida, home to Yemen’s most valuable port.

“The Houthi militias must withdraw from the city of Hodeida, and its port, and hand it over to the legitimate government, and specifically internal security forces,” Yamani said.

A Saudi-backed military coalition has for months led an offensive to retake Hodeida, the last rebel stronghold on Yemen’s Red Sea coast. The move has sparked fears for more than 150,000 civilians trapped in the city as even hospitals were seized by militants. 

Hodeida is on the agenda at the talks, slated to run for one week. Not on the table are negotiations on a solution to the conflict between the Saudi-backed government of Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi and Yemen’s Huthi rebels, according to Griffiths.

Mass starvation threat

One of the most impoverished countries in the world, the Arabian Peninsula state of Yemen is now home to what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with up to 15 million people facing imminent mass starvation.

Half the population of Yemen could become vulnerable to famine if no solution is reached, said the UN envoy Martin Griffiths. The Yemen food security survey revealed that more than 15 million people are currently in crisis or emergency conditions and that this number could rise to 20 million.

The talks in Rimbo, Sweden a picturesque village some 60 kilometres (35 miles) north of Stockholm have been months in the making, with the UN sending its special envoy to Sanaa to personally escort the rebel delegation to Sweden.

“During the coming days we will have a critical opportunity to give momentum to the peace process,” Griffiths told reporters as the rival delegations gathered in Sweden.

“There is a way we can resolve the conflict,” Griffiths said, adding that the Security Council was “united” in its support for a resolution to the conflict. 

“Remember these are consultations. We are not yet beginning the process of negotiations.”

The meeting marks the first attempt in two years to broker an end to the Yemen conflict, which has killed at least 10,000 people since Saudi Arabia and its allies joined the government’s fight against the rebels in 2015.

(RFI with AFP)

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